Thousands of posters offering advice on safer hitchhiking are being distributed across Canada as part of a campaign the RCMP describes as a first.
The national police force and a leading native group have reluctantly accepted that hitchhiking is inevitable in regions with poor public transit, so they are promoting tips to try to reduce the risks and generate evidence to track down those who assault hitchhikers.
The distribution list includes the Prince George area where the “Highway of Tears” is located, an area where dozens of women have gone missing and been murdered, some while hitchhiking.
Against the image of a woman with her thumb out as she stands by the side of a dusty, rural road, and under the words, “If you accept rides from strangers .…” the poster advises letting people know where you are going and when you safely arrive.
It also urges carrying a mobile phone, noting the description of any vehicle that offers a ride, using heavily travelled roads and sharing information about suspicious people with police.
“We’re not endorsing hitchhiking as a means of travel, but we’re merely recognizing that for a lot of people there are no other means of travel,” RCMP Superintendent Tyler Bates, director of aboriginal policing and crime-prevention services, said Thursday from Ottawa. “Are we ever going to make hitchhiking safe? Well, no.”
He said the tips will not eliminate risk, but they might enhance safety, and also generate helpful information for police if things go wrong.
The RCMP developed the campaign in co-operation with the Native Women’s Association of Canada.
Michèle Audette, president of the women’s association, said she and colleagues hitchhiked in their youth because they lived in isolated communities.
Ms. Audette recalled she was assaulted by a driver when she was 16 and travelling in Quebec, but escaped the vehicle thanks to self-defence lessons her father had insisted she take.
She said the organization discussed the campaign and realized that many hitchhikers have no choice, so it ruled out any advocacy that argued against the tradition. The challenge, she said, was trying to eliminate the dangers of hitchhiking. “If we can save one life or protect or save [someone] by sharing those tips, it’s important for us,” she said.
Supt. Bates said the advice is universal, though it was developed with First Nations communities in mind.
“The safety information that has been provided is safety advice that would enhance the safety of anybody who was engaged in this activity,” he said. “It’s not just specific to aboriginal communities, but I would be remiss if we did not recognize and consider the fact that there have been a number of murdered and missing aboriginal women that have disappeared throughout this country.”